Star Trek And The Politics Of Silicon Valley

Let’s get outside of the San Francisco bubble for a little while (trust me, there is oxygen here). I realize in a world saturated with protesters who have all the sophistication and menace of a shipful of Pakleds, it may seem like a protest in front of Kevin Rose’s home is the Biggest News in the Universe. It may seem doubly so when said protesters are demanding $3 billion in latinum, and your only news comes from Section 31 (rebranded as Secrets with a capital S to appeal to a wider audience). It’s visceral, raw, enervating and local, and it would be the featured story on Downworthy, if such a portal existed.

But outside the 7×7 Alpha Quadrant, things aren’t going so well for technology’s forces. Our local immigration lobby Bwd.Us (formerly known as has had all of the luck of a redshirt beaming down with the senior officers in trying to change policy in Washington (we’re still waiting on news from sickbay).

Meanwhile, Airbnb continues to fight the attorney general of New York to avoid paying taxes, even though its expansion there is happening at Tribble-rate, and Heartbleed showed us that our entire security infrastructure is about as secure as a Romulan walking through the Klingon High Council. Not to mention that little of the country has healed from the shock of the financial crisis, and families are still struggling to make ends meet.

I grew up watching Star Trek, a world where technologies like antimatter power, replicators, warp engines, and holodecks together construct a society in which there is infinite energy, consumables, transportation and entertainment. In short, a utopia, a world without scarcity where humans could cultivate themselves without the violence and bloodshed of their past. That progressive hope for the future conveyed by Gene Roddenberry has been at the core of what Silicon Valley has always strived to accomplish.

These days, though, it seems that the region has a very different goal in mind. Once fought, narcissism at Kirk levels is now cherished as a key design goal of businesses hoping to keep their “stickiness” up (there are four lights, and they are all shining on me!). Disruption, once considered a deleterious side effect of technological progress, is now lauded as a key virtue of great companies (makes you wonder if the changelings have taken over). It’s as if we moved from the Federation with rose-colored glasses to the Borg with Google Glasses. Resistance is futile.

When you look at the original founders of the Valley like William Hewlett and David Packard, these were people who evinced the culture of a show that hadn’t even been broadcast yet (unless time travel was involved, as it always is). Hewlett-Packard was famous for having unreserved parking spots even for top executives, and offering employees a generally egalitarian environment focused on technological progress. Compare that culture with the rumors surrounding Clinkle, and one has to wonder whether Ardra hasn’t made a reappearance.

Yet it wasn’t just culture, it was the technology, too. While the Valley may not be the Daystrom Institute, there was a mutualism between Silicon Valley and government, in which government heavily subsidized the creation of new technologies such as semiconductors. Later, the Internet would become the idealized embodiment of all of the utopian and cybernetics theorizing of the 1960s, which included Star Trek itself. Here was a decentralized network of equal nodes who could interact with others at will, all pseudonymously. It was a society in harmony without violence or aggression.

Yet that world would eventually be ruptured by a new group of theorists who saw the Internet in a very different light. Cyberlibertarianism came out of the 1980s, in the final throes of the Cold War when individual liberty was the watchword of the day. This group, with leaders like John Perry Barrow, channeled the zeitgeist of the time into a demand for digital rights, forming the Electronic Frontier Foundation along the way. The goals were certainly laudable, to protect individuals from government interference on the Internet. But that focus has changed as startups usurped the label to mean opposing any inconvenient government regulation.

For the most part, that strategy has become a sort of Rules of Acquisition for today’s startups. Regulations create artificial barriers to entry in markets, eventually infantilizing the competition and making these industries ripe for innovation. Controversy over breaking the rules and constant back-and-forth with the government assures ongoing coverage in the media, helping with distribution. This press has tended to be positive as well, since fighting government regulations has a special place in the American ethos, going all the way back to throwing tea into Boston Harbor. As customers flock to the startup, its political constituency increases commensurately, ensuring that the law will eventually change in its favor.

Unfortunately, the rules are getting harder to break as Silicon Valley targets highly regulated industries like financial services, health care, and energy (Warp Five Projects, essentially). The Valley hasn’t adapted to handling such industries, so its response has been to split California up into multiple states to provide us our own space and to build a new seafaring society off the shore of the U.S. to avoid federal law (that sounds like the perfect plot for an episode). We see the end result of all of these actions: fragmentation and isolation, not unity and engagement. This is not the Federation at work here.

Airbnb, Uber and Tesla have targeted areas where local regulations have applied. But the next wave of startups will touch areas of society where regulations are strong and often handled at the federal level. To be successful, we need to bring back technology’s progressive ethos and demonstrate again that we can engage with our society rather than just disrupt it. It’s only logical, as some pointy-eared character should say right now.

In many ways, we live in a Star Trek utopia today. Mobile communicators are plentiful, entertainment is essentially unlimited, and computer processing power is infinite through the cloud if not free. But the hardest challenges facing our race are sadly still too often present: inequality, famine, disease, war, energy, water, and the list goes on. If we want to evolve our society, it’s well past time for us to remove our arrogance, and direct our attention to building a future all of us can enjoy. And we should also apply for a construction permit for Starfleet Academy. Given its San Francisco Presidio location, it won’t even open until 2140 at the earliest due to the planning process.